Many of you may remember my one and only software review of a product called Touch Inspect back in December 2009, by a Denver, Colorado (Aurora)-based company called Mobile Epiphany. At the time this is how I began my initial brief review of the software program:
“The software is called Touch Inspect, and it is essentially a computerized, geospatially aware, data-collection application with an amazing user interface. But having said that, just so you understand the basic intent of the program, I have to also say that it is so much more than a computerized data-collection application. Calling Touch Inspect a typical computerized data-collection application is like comparing a skateboard to a Ferrari.”
At the time I promised an in-depth review the software “real soon.” Well, real soon has turned into 16 months, and not a single week has gone by that I have not received several e-mails wanting to know more about the software and asking when the next review would be published. So for all of you who have been waiting, this is the promised in-depth review of Touch Inspect version 2.0, which the company now promotes as customizable software tools under the more apt heading of “Mobile Business Process Software.” But the base program is still known as Touch Inspect.
Bottom Line Up Front — BLUF
When you brief senior military officers today, as I have occasion to do, it seems that they all want the first chart to be the BLUF chart. It is a version of the old military briefing idiom that goes like this: Tell me what you are going to tell me and then tell me and then at the end tell me what you told me. So I will start by saying that my original assessment of Touch Inspect has not changed, unless it is to have become even more enamored with this incredible software. I have an even broader vision of its uses, especially for warfighters, whether their primary function is combat, maintenance, inspection or logistics. This software applies to first responders as well. You be the judge.
Versatility and Visions
When I was first briefed on this unique software program back in 2009, my first thoughts were that this is indeed a great inspection software program, but I can think of so many more uses for it. My first thought was that it would be wonderfully useful as a mobile IED (Improvised Explosive Device) database, inspection, and information-gathering program. In fact, it was so obvious that I was off wool-gathering about IED databases during the briefing that the CEO of Mobile Epiphany, Dr. Glenn Kletzky, stopped his presentation until I rejoined the real world. But this is what hearing about this incredible software does to you. It makes you think of all the possibilities and capabilities it makes available to our warfighters and first responders. I was happy to hear from Glenn that my reaction, thinking that Touch Inspect is so much more than a top-notch mobile inspection tool, was to become a commonplace reaction amongst almost everyone who saw or heard about the software.
Today, Touch Inspect, running under numerous pseudonyms, is being utilized by our government and others in ways we just can’t discuss in this venue. It is being tested and/or used in the construction industry, in oil and gas operations and exploration, in utility related industries, in the telecommunications industry, in human services and tracking, as well as in healthcare, just to name a few of the myriad user communities. There are other users that I am not allowed to list because this software really gives you an unfair advantage over those not utilizing its considerable and unique capabilities. Suffice it to say that almost everyone who views a demonstration of this extremely flexible asset and process/procedure-focused software thinks of something useful for it to accomplish, and sometimes it even involves inspecting something.
My first thoughts of using Touch Inspect for activities surrounding IEDs has evolved considerably. Not only can the Mobile Epiphany software be used to house an interactive mobile database with all the knowledge we have gained about IEDs, but when the software is running on a rugged mobile device with GPS, communications, and cameras, as well as other sensors, it enables the user to:
- Take a picture of the device and annotate that image
- Look up other items in the database with automatic prompting of what the user should look for
- Instruct the user how to interact with the IED (other than the obvious precaution of ‘run’ or proceed very carefully)
- Assist users in identifying the type of IED and the associated dangers
- Automatically gather data such as location to include GPS or specific grid coordinates, altitude, and heading and whether other IEDs have been found on the same site previously or in the surrounding area and can automatically identify those locations on an internal or externally obtained map
- Record the time of the observation and the position of the observer, for review at a later date.
If the IED is a common type or one seen previously by EOD or Explosive Ordnance Disposal personnel, the software can be configured to instruct the user on disarming the device, if he/she is crazy enough to do that, and if disarming is indeed an option; it does all this with preprogrammed software that ensures all the necessary data is collected. If the user is a novice, which can be automatically determined by the user’s login and granted permissions, the software can automatically prompt the user at every step, or in the case of an experienced user, the software can make use of an accelerated or “fast-flow” mode that eliminates many of the more basic steps or procedures and gets to the required data collection and instructional screens without delay.
In short, the software is flexible in the extreme, to the point that I can make the statement that I see uses for it every day, especially for our warfighters and first responders, and I sincerely hope that it makes its way into the .mil applications store for the DoD soon. It is a software product and capability/advantage our warfighters desperately need.
When I wrote my first review, the Touch Inspect software (version 1.0) ran only on handheld devices that used the Windows Mobile Operating System. Today, it runs on all versions of Windows Mobile (5, 6, 6.1 and 6.5) as well as running on all versions of the full Windows operating systems (XP, Vista, and W7). Furthermore, the full Windows version of Touch Inspect runs on all PC-based slates and tablets in either orientation (portrait or landscape) and can be resized from full screen to a minimal window size, thus sharing the screen with other applications.
Today the software is also in the process of being ported to Android and Apple platforms. The Android operating system versions will be released in the third quarter of 2011 and the Apple versions will be released in the fourth quarter of 2011.
Although Mobile Epiphany is growing by leaps and bounds, according to Dr. Kletzky, I predict that the company will really take off when the Android and Apple versions hit the street. If you can’t tell, I am as excited about this software as I am about my iPad and
iPhone because it will take the usability of these highly desired and much utilized mobile platforms, especially for warfighters and first responders, to new heights. The software and hardware combined will present an awesome potential that will greatly enhance our warfighters’ and first responders’ productivity and safety. For example, since these are the most popular and prevalently used devices in theater, the U.S. Army is considering a plan to provide Android and Apple mobile devices to the warfighters. So why not provide the warfighters with the very best and most flexible software, along with its very friendly user interface as well? Provide the warfighter with devices and software that they will actually use and customize to their needs. The combination of top-of-the-line mobile devices and Mobile Epiphany software will save time, money, and lives. But, of course, Windows is already in very wide use today throughout our armed forces, and this software is ready right now to help those existing users.
I’m convinced the combination will prove to be an invaluable tool for mission planning, data collection, intelligence gathering, and post mission debriefs, as well as a tool for the everyday tasks that must be conducted in a prescribed manner — such tasks as pre-flights, repair procedures, facility and equipment inspections, and anything else that requires a complex procedure or checklist today. I don’t want to dumb down this versatile product and call it an automated and/or interactive checklist, because that is just one of the more mundane but important uses of the software. And I don’t want you to forget the instructional capability of the software. You can have complex procedures where every step is accompanied by multiple reference high-definition media to ensure success at your task, like a parts blow-out or a wiring diagram, right on your mobile device. Whether you need to learn a new complicated business process or a new series of military procedures, the Mobile Epiphany software has the ability to take you through it step-by-step flawlessly, with seemingly endless potential branches in any scenario, until you are confident that you have mastered your task. Glenn Kletzky explained it this way: “Once you have procedures or processes of any sort established, and you have users who perform and confirm those steps on paper or on screens, it is then just another small step to convert those steps, complete with branching logic based on a user’s input, into Touch Inspect.”
“Although it is critical to ensure quality data collection and disciplined procedural adherence to process, it is also a step ignored by most software programs,” Kletzky said. “Once these steps are rapidly configured into the Touch Inspect’s Business Process design tool in combination with the available branching logic capabilities, viola! you have a process that can be customized to the user’s needs.”
The Real Deal
Never being one to totally trust marketing hype, I showed up at Mobile Epiphany’s facility a few weeks ago with three very different GPS-enabled mobile computers. I brought the latest Trimble NOMAD, being used by thousands of our warfighters today, a borrowed first-generation GD (General Dynamics) rugged MR-1 computer, which I reviewed for our readers two years ago in April 2009, and the most recent computer I reviewed, just last month in fact, the Handheld Algiz 7. I then challenged Glenn to load version 2.0 of the Touch Inspect software on all three machines and we would see how they fared.
So while Glenn was giving me the latest updated briefing on and future plans for the Mobile Epiphany software, his technicians loaded the software and the results were amazing. The rugged GD computer was the oldest machine, being a very early version (Hint: there is a much more modern and totally waterproof version of the MR-1 available today from GD). My borrowed device is several years old and still operating with an antiquated version of the Microsoft XP operating system, with a small amount of RAM, compared to today’s latest machines. But once loaded, the Mobile Epiphany software screamed on the machine. Everything from zooming in on annotated images, slipping and zooming in on maps, rolling through flick lists of assets, etc., all animated smoothly. It ran as fast, once loaded, as the two newer machines, which sported much faster processors and double or triple the RAM. This just goes to prove that the software does adapt well to various platforms and operating systems. You don’t need to have the latest and greatest hardware and tons of RAM to run this software. That to me is a testament to the hard work the Mobile Epiphany software engineers have put into making this a truly adaptable mobile software tool, that really comes alive on a PNT-enabled device.
The GD MR-1 running Touch Inspect.
For those of you who are saying, yeah, great, sure it is customizable, but I don’t have millions of dollars and months or years to customize the Touch Inspect software to make it do what I need it to do. Oh contraire, mon ami. On-the-fly process and workflow customization is another major strong suit of this software, and it differentiates it from any other software I have ever used.
Dr. Glenn Kletzky is actually the CEO of two very successful IT companies, Mobile Epiphany and iBeta. iBeta is a 12-year-old software quality assurance and testing laboratory for software ranging from enterprise class applications for government all the way to the video game industry. And he and his team have been at this for some time, and they have experienced the agony of the software development life-cycle (SDLC). It is not uncommon for robust mobile applications which include geospatial and process capabilities to require no less than 18 months to design, develop, test, and fix prior to being ready for deployment. Additionally, the SDLC requires a team of skilled programmers and testers to meet those deadlines. And even that speed can only be achieved using tools known as Rapid Application Development or RAD tools. Glenn likes to say, we (Mobile Epiphany) took that process from 18 months to 18 hours, and the 18 hours requires no software developers. All that is required is a subject matter expert (SME) in the field for which you are customizing the software and a single person who knows how to configure the process using the technology’s easy-to-use configuration toolset. Yes, you heard me right: just 18 hours versus 18 months. Talk about time, cost savings, and flexibility.
Mobile Epiphany accomplishes this feat through a process known as Rapid Application Configuration or RAC, and it is possible because of Mobile Epiphany’s new approach to rapid application creation and deployment. You do not have to go through the traditional lengthy process of designing the application itself and the screen appearances, or even the work flows. This is because the application and all the relevant workflows required for a geospatial, process-based application already exists. The software has already been designed, developed, and tested. The person in charge of configuration simply “configures” the application (easy to learn — no programming at all) with a rapid customization tool included in the
configuration tool set, known as the “Business Process Designer.” And this configuration tool, along with others, can be learned by non-programmers in a matter of a few hours. This means our warfighters, who already customize and download specialized applications on their non-government mobile devices, can now totally customize Touch Inspect software via the RAC process, on the fly, in the field, in less than a day, to do exactly what they need it to do. And after one person configures the work flow or process required, it can be sent wirelessly or by wire to two or two thousands other users. I know this sounds impossible and too good to be true, but I have personally observed the process and then customized the software myself, and believe me if I can do it, anyone can. And the beauty is that the customization process and version control are seamless. They appear to the user to just be another part of the application because they are, and that is a large part of the appeal of the Mobile Epiphany software.
What makes Mobile Epiphany Software So Different?
When I asked Glenn how he had managed to develop software with such incredible and user-friendly capabilities, he simply said: “We listened to our customers and our users, and we figured out a way to simplify the process of giving them what they need. They asked for powerful and flexible software with a friendly user interface that could be customized in the field, on the fly and that’s what we gave them.” It should be noted that Glenn worked with video-game designers in his company, who are not programmers, to develop the entire interface.
Now- anyone in the software business knows that in order for a powerful software program to accomplish useful work and still be simple to operate, there must be a tremendous amount of capability hidden inside an intuitive interface with a definable hierarchical process and this is what Mobile Epiphany software epitomizes.
So indeed Mobile Epiphany has built a very useful business process software tool that incorporates:
- Robust hierarchical lists with image and data lookup built-in. After all, images can be a big part of the procedural discipline and data collection and process.
- A powerful and advanced branching logic engine: think Boolean logic and powerful and/or <> = rules and searches made easy.
- Using math as a method to determine branching logic requirements, and making math easy and natural for the user.
- Ensuring there is a hierarchical approach to everything (if you require it) with drill downs at every level to ensure you won’t get lost in the process.
To add authenticity, intended use specificity, and ownership for the user, Mobile Epiphany spent hundreds of programming hours making it easy for the user to “skin” or customize his own application’s appearance. It is all Touch Inspect underneath, but it can make the interface appear to be user purpose specific, with art placed onto the interface not only as a user trademark, but also as an integral part of the buttons they press to complete their unique workflow and process. Indeed, with the Mobile Epiphany software, customer branding can be displayed in many ways, obvious or subtle, on every screen if necessary, and it can all be accomplished within the confines of the original software. As the saying goes today, there is a GUI (graphical user interface) and/or an app for that, and in this case they are built-in.
For example, if a fire department is using the software, the program displays an almost endless variation of maps and/or floor plans plus a database of chemicals that have toxic fumes when exposed to heat. Both maps and encrypted data can be stored directly on the device (no network connection required in order to keep working) or it can be brought in through secured online connections (real-time) to map and data servers. The software readily accommodates PNT (position, navigation and timing) inputs, as well as geospatial information system data, from numerous sources, and seamlessly incorporates those inputs and displays the information as needed by the user, in more ways than you would imagine. The system’s server even has a complete set of web services and APIs (application programming interfaces) so that the data trapped in legacy systems and only accessible through fixed terminals can now be made mobile through integration to the Mobile Epiphany servers.
If you want or need more diversity, then rapid customization on the fly is only a few hours away. You don’t need a separate development team or costly software development program. All the customization capabilities are built into the Mobile Epiphany software, and you can test the results of your changes as you go along. Remember, all that’s required are the subject-matter experts who have a process that needs to be made mobile. The software also features a powerful report-building and report-running tool, a business process design tool for rapid application configuration (RAC), an enterprise description and security administration tool so that you can decide who in the organization (or what group of people) can gain access to which data, as well as a data exploration tool for rapid look-up of data via an easy-to-use query engine.
All the customization and rapid configuration tools and capabilities sound great, but what about the reporting tools? What happens when you need to interface with the office IBM mainframe or a distributed military server network and then need to print or produce reports in a standard format with legacy reporting requirements? Not a problem; the Mobile Epiphany software can integrate to any legacy system on the company server or network seamlessly and produce reports in most all required formats.
There are web services and APIs (application programming interface), which allow the software to be integrated to any other existing system or network. It is a combination push-and-pull process. While the software does not need any other back-end system to function (it is a full, end-to-end system), it can also function as powerful middleware for existing systems. The way Touch Inspect collects data and tracking geospatial metadata, it retains a rich layer of metadata on the assets and users in the system (as well as images and signatures that are also date, time, and geotagged) that most systems may not be designed to store and report on. Therefore, the integration of data from a legacy system into the Mobile Epiphany servers acts not only to mobilize the data, but to extend the capability of the legacy system, storing the geospatial metadata and other aspects of data that the legacy system was not designed to retain.
Integration to other systems is certainly not a requirement to make use of the software. As stated previously, it is a full stand-alone, end-to-end system. But the Mobile Epiphany software works in such a unique way that customers can take advantage of the capability until their systems can be modified to store and forward the encrypted data as needed. Although Mobile Epiphany hosts their clients’ data in their servers in the cloud, the server technology need not be hosted by Mobile Epiphany. The Mobile Epiphany server technology is also available to customers who want to host and secure their own data behind their own firewalls. Like the new IBM commercial says, “We have to start thinking about data differently,” and once you experience the amount of rich metadata that the Touch Inspect software produces, you will understand why this is a popular capability.
Bottom Line at the End – BLATE
The Mobile Epiphany software is a valuable tool that our warfighters and fir
st responders need to have in their arsenal now. The software by itself is a revelation, and when combined with real-time GPS data, it becomes a true force multiplier. The Mobile Epiphany software provides the warfighter and first responder with a capability that, once used, they will not want to be without.
The Mobile Epiphany software is so easy to use and customize, and the user interface is so intuitive, that users are typically up and running and customizing the software in a matter of hours. When contrasted with the horrible user interface and proprietary software on the current MGUE (Mobile Government User Equipment) issued today, the Mobile Epiphany software is a simple no-brainer. Let’s make sure we provide our warfighters and first responders with the latest and greatest software and most friendly user interface available today; in my opinion, that is software from Mobile Epiphany. I will go so far as to say that if the current version of the handheld DAGR (Defense Advanced GPS Receiver) were running Mobile Epiphany software, it would be a valuable tool that warfighters would actually enjoy using, despite all its other shortcomings. I can say this because reportedly all the embedded DAGRs that are currently in use perform their tasks well, as long as the user does not actually have to interface directly with the device. What our warfighters actually say about the current DAGR user interface and operating system, we can’t print. But you can imagine. So it’s nice to know there could be a fix. Now I just need to get Rockwell Collins and Mobile Epiphany in the same room.
But, hey. You don’t have to take my word for it. Just go to the Mobile Epiphany website and view the numerous video demos and tutorials. Or call the company and request a test drive. I am convinced you will agree with my assessment. Please click on the e-mail address below, and then drop us a line and let us know what you think firstname.lastname@example.org.
This week (11-15 April 2011) I will be attending the 27th Annual National Space Symposium, the largest space symposium and exhibit in the world today, in Colorado Springs, Colorado, at the beautiful Broadmoor Resort. Tough duty, but somehow I will prevail. Be sure and check the GPS World website for my daily blogs, as I am sure the LightSquared debacle will be a focal point of many discussions. (For a list of all GPS World blogs, click here.)
Until next time, happy navigating.